The Gospel According to the Chicago Cubs

By Zac Koons

The season of Advent invites us to reflect on the coming of Christ; in particular, we are reminded in this season that the Church is situated between two distinct comings of Christ — the first being the birth of baby Jesus in a Bethlehem barn on Christmas morning 2,000 years ago, and the other still to come, Christ’s second coming, the last judgment, the consummation, the redemption of all things. Church is the name for those followers of God who live stuck between these two events.

One phrase used to describe the shape of this predicament, which I find to be quite helpful, is “already-but-not-yet.” In one sense redemption has already been accomplished, in Jesus’ teachings and miracles, and especially in his cross and resurrection. Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah — whom we read a lot of during Advent — prophesied the redemption of all things; the prophets described it so Israel would know what to look for. In today’s reading, Isaiah tells of a shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse, meaning that one day an anointed deliverer will come from the line of King David, one on whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest. When Jesus came, the prophets held up the scroll of Isaiah again and said, “Hey, this looks like that. Redemption must be already here.”

But in another quite tangible sense the redemption foretold in Isaiah is not yet finished. It’s not yet comprehensive. If you keep reading in Isaiah, you reach a part that says this: “And the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the snake.” That part hasn’t happened yet. Jesus ascended and the early Church looked around and realized the world is still broken. We still get sick, we still sin, and we still die. As Paul says in Romans, creation still groans in anticipation of redemption (Rom. 8:22). Whatever Jesus started, it’s not done yet.

Advent is a season for us to reflect on the already-but-not-yet aspects of our lives — that we are intractably stuck between the first and the second comings of Christ. What I’d like to talk about this morning is how these contours of our Christian existence affect how we decide to live. How do we live in this already-but-not-yet world?

Lucky for y’all, I’ve recently discovered an easy solution to this problem, a secret code; a magical key that I am about to reveal for the very first time. Are you ready?

It’s the Chicago Cubs.

This secret key is just one specific moment in the life of the Cubs. I’m referring to the last five seconds of the last game of the 2016 World Series. Allow me to set the scene: it’s the bottom of the tenth inning, two outs, the Cubs up by one run, and Mike Montgomery is pitching to Michael Martinez. Martinez, on the second pitch, hits a short-hop grounder toward third base, which is fielded by the National League MVP and Cubs third baseman, Kris Bryant, who throws the runner out at first and falls to his knees as bedlam ensues, because the Cubs just won the World Series.

Call me crazy, but I think just about everything you need to know about being a Christian is embedded in that five seconds.

There are three things present within those five seconds I want to mention.

The first thing to notice about those five seconds is the looming presence of the Curse. If you’re a Cubs fan, you know about the curse of the billy goat. You know that it’s been 108 years since the Cubs won their last World Series, which is a drought twice as long as for the next team in line. And you’re confident the reason for this is because your team is under a curse.

Just in case one or two of you here don’t know the story, it’s this: the only other time in the last century the Cubs have come close to a trophy was in 1945, when they made it to the World Series. Sometime during Game 4, a Wrigleyville pub owner was kicked out of the stadium because his pet goat, named Murphy, who he brought with him into the stands, stank so bad it was bothering other fans. In an act of retribution, the pub owner put a hex on the Cubs. They lost that World Series and until 2016 they hadn’t been back to one since.

The curse hung heavily in the air of those last five seconds, as Cubs Nation held its breath, seconds from glory but almost certainly expecting misery. The weight of the curse looms large in our daily lives; its existence is even harder to deny than the curse of the billy goat. Our curse is called sin, and we see its effects everywhere, in every act of injustice, in every illness, and in every death. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that original sin is the most empirically verifiable of all the Christian doctrines.

The reason I say this is that I think describing sin as a curse is helpful language. It helps us understand that there is more to sin then just the summation of all our individual mistakes. As Robert Jenson puts it, it feels very much like there’s someone or something out there laughing at us.[1] Which is to say, there is a real and active evil force in the world, forces beyond our control that are in rebellion against their Creator, that are working intentionally contrary to God’s will and purposes.

Our desires are curved in on themselves, making it easier for us to choose what is wrong than what is right. The world’s evils aren’t somehow built into the nature of things, as though creation were a chess game God stumbled onto, in which the only way to capture the black rook that gives you a job promotion is to sacrifice the white knight that would’ve kept your cousin from getting cancer. That’s not the way it works. God has an enemy. God’s desire is always for healing, for justice, and life. That’s number one.

Number two, if you watch through an alternate camera angle, one zoomed in on the Cubs’ third baseman, Kris Bryant, for the duration of the play, you’ll see something miraculous — that in the same millisecond the ball comes off the bat, the same millisecond Bryant realizes the ball has been hit towards him but still long before the ball is safely in his glove, much less the glove of the first baseman, Kris Bryant is smiling. He’s beaming. Ear to ear. I think it’s the most beautiful moment I’ve ever seen in sports.

You see, even though it’s not quite done yet, he can already see in his mind everything that’s about to happen. Even though it’s still four seconds into the future, he can already see the future where the curse is broken. The horizon of a whole new world is unfurling before him. And in this new reality, why couldn’t the Cubs win it again? It’s just such an amazing moment. The game isn’t quite over, technically the curse is still in effect, but Bryant is already feeling the effects of redemption in his bones. He is, in some strange way, already living in the future.

This is the moment we live in. This is the already-but-not-yet, the moment in history called Church. Redemption isn’t done quite yet. But by reading the prophets, and by looking at Jesus, we can see that future on the horizon. We know what it will be like. The lion will lay down with the lamb. All wrongs will be made right. Death will be no more. And we’ll experience eternal companionship with God and one another. We can see that future from here.

And in fact, we can already feel the effects of redemption in our bones. We experience salvation now. Our sins have been forgiven. And we’ve been given the Holy Spirit in our baptism, who is working in our bodies and in our communities to bring about redemption here and now, through repentance and reconciliation.

Which is why — to put it simply — being a Christian means being someone who often can’t help but smile. Christians are definitionally a joyful people. And let me be clear, being joyful does not mean ignoring the pain, the brokenness, or other not-yet-redeemed parts of creation. Being joyful does not preclude being sad, heartbroken, or even depressed. The joy of the Christian smile comes from a deeper place — a deeper place that knows, despite all the heartbreaking realities of our world, that in the end God wins. And that we have, to some extent, already experienced that victory in our hearts. To be a part of the Church is, in some strange way, to be already living in the future.

Lastly, number three, even though Kris Bryant is smiling, he still needs to throw the ball. He still needs to get it to first base. Even though we can see comprehensive redemption in our future, there’s still work that needs to be done. The name for that work is discipleship.

How do we do discipleship? Well, let’s not leave our metaphor behind just yet. How does Kris Bryant successfully field that grounder and throw it to first base? The answer for both is training. You’d be hard pressed to find a better, more theologically rich metaphor for Christian discipleship — that is, Christian moral training — than the kind of training undergone by baseball players.

The reason is that the way one becomes a good baseball player is more about the formation of instincts and habits than it is the repeated rehearsal of individual plays or shots. Think about this: A batter at the plate has a fraction of a second to decide whether the pitch coming at him is a ball or a strike, and therefore whether he should swing. That’s not enough time to think.

What you must do instead is to develop instincts, so your bat practically responds involuntarily, almost automatically. And you form instincts by developing habits, by facing so many thousands of different kinds of pitches that your bat is ready to respond to whatever kind of pitch comes next. Likewise, Kris Bryant doesn’t prepare to field that grounder by having some machine duplicate exactly that kind of short-hop, slow-moving, left-spinning grounder a hundred times. There are infinite ways a ball can come off a bat. The key is to have taken so many thousands of different kinds of grounders in practice that in the game you’ll be ready to field whatever kind of hit comes your way.

The truth is that Kris Bryant had no idea what was about to happen when the pitch was first thrown. And it’s the same for us. We often have no idea what’s coming at us next. Will it be cancer? A new boss? A larger salary? A car crash? A divorce? Or an unexpected healing? Like in baseball, and so too for us, there can be long seasons when it feels like nothing is really happening. But the truth is on that last play, all Cubs were on the tip of their toes, ready for the ball to be hit to them.

Christian discipleship is not about predicting or controlling what happens to you next. It’s about developing the right kinds of holy instincts so you can respond Christianly to whatever comes your way. Our habits aren’t calling balls and strikes. They are going to church. Reading the Bible. Praying. Living in Christian community and friendship. They are eating and drinking bread and wine. It’s precisely through repeated moments at the Christian plate that we can hope, when those crucial moments come in our lives, to respond with forgiveness instead of vengeance, to react with patience instead of anger, to almost involuntarily respond with kindness instead of selfishness, or peace instead of violence. We all know it’s not a question of whether these moments come. They always do. And if we want to get the ball to first base, we must develop holy instincts.

You can see how the well-developed instincts of Kris Bryant make his smile possible. He was so confident in his instincts that he could relax and enjoy the most intense moment of his career. Christian joy, it turns out, is a moral accomplishment. This is about more than just doing the right thing in life’s important moments. It’s about you being able to smile. This is about joy.

I want to leave us with this question: What if being a Christian — what if these things we’re surrounded with this morning, this bread and wine, these ancient Scriptures, these prayers of confession and intercession, these habits of Christian discipleship — what if these things are our best chance at experiencing joy? What if these things right in front of us are the key to living in this already-but-not-yet world? What if these things are really the only way to cope with the curse? What if being a Christian represents our best chance at true and lasting joy?

The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.

[1] Robert Jenson, A Theology in Outline, 60.


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